We have seen the future, and it doesn’t belong to you
By Rik Myslewski in San Francisco
Posted in Software, 31st December 2009 11:02 GMT
Back in the turbulent 1960s, the anti-establishment rabble was often derided as being “out of control.” Fast-forward 50 years to the 2010s, when that same phrase will soon be back in vogue.
But with a very different meaning.
The coming decade is shaping up to be one in which we, as consumers and citizens, will see our control over choice and privacy eroded by business and government. Some of the effects will be mere annoyances, but others will transform society. And not for the better.
This unwelcome transformation is already underway in the personal-technology sector, led by two of the most secretive companies in our industry: Apple and Google. Waiting in the wings are corporate entities eager to exploit your personal information, and government agencies watching your every step.
Welcome to the out-of-control decade.
Embrace your widgethood
At the beginning of this decade, Apple’s Steve Jobs was fond of saying (http://money.cnn.com/magazines/fortune/fortune_archive/2001/11/12/313342/index.htm) that Apple stood out from its competition because its product philosophy was to control “the whole widget.” In the coming decade, users will increasingly become just another component of that all-encompassing widget.
Apple’s übersuccessful App Store, for example, has turned on its head the notion that if you own a computing device, it’s under your control and it’s yours to do with what you will.
And make no mistake about it, the iPhone and iPod Touch are computing devices, not merely phones and media players. They’re both early examples of a trend that is sure to explode in the next decade: computing-in-your pocket. Both perform tasks such as web browsing, email, and productivity chores that were formerly consigned to your desktop or laptop.
What the iPhone and iPod touch don’t have in common with earlier computers is the fact that you don’t control what software you can use with them. Apple does.
To be sure, you can now choose from among 100,000 apps (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/04/app_store_milestone/) to load upon Apple’s handhelds. But who selects the apps from which you can choose? Apple does.
And Apple’s control over its App Store is deservedly notorious. Examples are legion.
Background processing? Apple makes it possible for its own apps – iTunes, for example – to run in the background when other apps are being used. That’s not the case for third-party apps such as Pandora’s personalized music service or the Shoutcast internet-radio enabler.
App-installed executables? Sorry, no can do – Apple’s EULA for the iPhone SDK specifically prohibts an app from calling or installing externally sourced executables. Tough luck for Flash and Java.
Competitive apps? Outside of Apple, no one knows how many apps have been rejected because the App Store police considered them competitive to Cupertino’s own offerings. One case that did come to public attention was the dust-up when Google said Apple rejected its Google Voice and Google Latitude apps, Apple said it was merely continuing to “study (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/09/18/fcc_releases_google_reponse/)” them, and AT&T said “Don’t look at me, bro!”
Adult-themed content? Despite every user’s ability to access an unending torrent of sweaty salaciousness through Apple’s own Safari app, the App Store itself remains a bastion of purity, unsullied by even the suggestion of nipple or bum – despite the fact that in most cases such content is perfectly legal.
Allegedly defamatory content? Apple unilaterally decides what’s defamatory and what’s not. Witness, for example, how the App Store police rejected (http://www.tomrichmond.com/blog/2009/11/09/apple-rejects-my-caricature-app/) an app featuring safe-as-milk caricatures of various political figures – then reinstated it only after a media ruckus.
We could go on, but our point is clear: By signing up for an iPhone or iPod touch – or, we’re willing to bet, the impending iPad (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/24/january_ipad_launch/) – you’re relinquishing control over your mobile computer and allowing Apple to decide what’s best for you.
There are indeed ways to at least partially regain that control, but loading an app that hasn’t received Apple’s blessing requires you to jump through jailbreaking hoops – not a task for Mr. and Ms. Average Consumer.
And should you have the temerity to want to revert either your device’s operating system or an app, Apple throws up roadblocks (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/27/apple_doesnt_trust_you/).
Why? Because, as an Apple spokesperson told The Reg, “Apple always recommends that iPhone customers keep current with software updates for the best user experience.”
You don’t have control over that user experience. Apple does.
In a recent Businessweek interview (http://www.businessweek.com/technology/content/nov2009/tc20091120_354597.htm) in which he attempted to tamp down rumblings of dissatisfaction over App Store control, Apple’s marketer par excellence Phil Schiller embodied Cupertino’s paternalistic approach to application delivery. “You and your family and friends can download applications from the store,” he said, “and for the most part they do what you’d expect, and they get onto your phone, and you get billed appropriately, and it all just works.”
In other words: “Don’t worry. Be happy. Apple’s in control.” Even if you don’t want it to be.
Of course, you can avoid Apple’s grip by simply not patronizing them. No one is forcing you to own an iPhone or buy your music from the iTunes Store. However, in the 2010s, the merciless success of Apple’s model may inspire others to emulate its style of control. Not only because it works and works well, but also because control over a device’s apps makes it easier to control competition, customer support, and pricing strategies.
And as the out-of-control decade dawns, technology providers are moving such control out of your pocket and onto your desktop or laptop. There’s a growing trend (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/04/02/subsidized_netbooks/) for telcos to offer subsidized netbooks – and as the decade progresses and true wireless broadband such as LTE and WiMAX becomes pervasive and localized WiFi hotspots fade, it will become increasingly rare for telcos to offer such services without subsidized platforms.
In this model, a telco can choose to lock down – either technically or through restrictive user licenses – what apps may reside on a subsidized computing device.
As the decade progresses, however, your choice of apps may become moot as the concept of standalone, device-installed apps fades into computing history. You may have heard of the prime mover behind this next control-quashing development: the cloud.
Apple certainly has. It isn’t building that $1bn data center (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/06/04/apple_1bn_north_carolina_data_center/) in North Carolina simply to support its accounts-receivable department. Cupertino will soon be moving into cloud computing in a big way.
But for the foreseeable future, Apple will remain behind another Silicon Valley megacorp that has a huge head start in gaining control over what you see on the internet and what information can be gleaned from you.
Goo•gle: v. tr. [goō-gəl] to control
Ten years from now, the concept of keeping all your personal apps and files on your local device – except for high-end systems used by pro-level content creators – may be as passé as booting your PC using toggle switches (http://www.old-computers.com/museum/computer.asp?c=896&st=1).
They will instead reside somewhere in the cloud, out of sight, out of mind – and out of your direct control.
This transition will be hastened by ever-faster wireless broadband, ever-increasing online storage capabilities, and an ever-expanding megacorporation that is single-mindedly seeking to control every last corner of the online universe: Google.
The world’s largest online ad merchant and search provider has already begun its efforts to move apps and files off your machine and into its data centers. To be sure, its Google Apps suite provides cost-effective convenience, but to take advantage of its benefits you need to relinquish control of your content.
Meanwhile, with roughly 70 per cent of today’s online search market, Google is well on its way to knowing everything about what you’re looking for online, and its AdSense and DoubleClick services inform the search giant which ad-enabled pages you’ve visited. Add to that Mountain View’s recent decision to implement what it calls its Google Public DNS, and your web habits are both trackable and storable.
And as Google’s search and ad market share grows, it controls more of what you see on the web. When you search or visit an AdSense site, you’re seeing the links Google wants you to see. Mountain View also personalizes (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/07/google_personalizes_logged_out_search/) your search results based on your prior searches, ostensibly to show you what it thinks you’re interested in – there’s that pesky control issue again – but in reality its goal is a purely commercial one: to better target ads to you.
Again, as with having all your data in the cloud, there’s nothing inherently wrong with targeting ads. It’s just that in both of those cases you’re transferring control to Google. If that’s fine with you, then, well, more power to you. Just remember, as Tom Waits sang, “There’s always free cheddar in a mousetrap, baby.”
But the vast majority of those internet users who fall under the Mr. and Ms. Average Consumer sobriquet are not even aware that Google is personalizing the search results it presents to them. They believe they are seeing the web as a level playing field of unfiltered information, merely presented to them for their edification and enjoyment.
They don’t know that they’ve handed over a fair amount of their control over their search experience to the world’s largest online ad broker.
Today, Google claims that it will dump information that its Google Public DNS obtains about your personal IP address in a day or two, and that it won’t combine DNS data with data it collects elsewhere. But that’s not the point.
What matters is that you’re entrusting all that information to Google – with an emphasis on the word “trust.” Google may paint itself as a benevolent actor interested only in making the online world a better place to visit, but whether it actually has your best interests at heart is beyond your control.
As OpenDNS founder David Ulevitch put it, “To think that Google’s DNS service is for the benefit of the Internet would be naïve.”
Google is planning another control grab with its recently unveiled (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/11/19/google_chrome_os_unveiled/) Chrome OS – which isn’t actually an operating system per se, but rather a means to run browser-based applications. And only browser-based applications – local apps won’t run on Chrome OS–based machines, which is just as well, seeing as how the OS won’t support devices with hard drives.
So where will Chrome OS apps reside, along with their data? Yup, up in that cloud, out of your direct control. And when those apps come down out of that cloud onto say, a Google netbook (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/17/googlenetbook/), the Google OS could prioritize which apps would get priority UI treatment – and you can be darn sure that if that’s the case, Mountain View will put its own apps front and center.
And even if Google does deign to give all apps equal access to the Chrome OS UI, its own apps would still have a leg up on the competition. Since Mountain View keeps the latest versions of its OS code to itself until it releases them into the wild, its own apps have a head start on each new feature.
Mountain View will therefore be able to expand its control not only over its customer base, but also over its developer ecosystem.
How very Apple of them.
And, of course, sweeping control over apps and access increases control over pricing and services distribution.
Today, consumer-level cloud computing is a distant competitor to locally focused PCs and handhelds. But expect that to change over the coming decade as locked-down netbooks, increasingly powerful pocket computers, and such devices as Apple’s long-rumored media pad and its follow-ons make their appearance, supported by low-cost or carrier-subsidized services.
But remember that low-cost and no-cost services can become pricier as time goes by, when they reach a saturation level at which enough users rely upon them. At that point, providers can risk driving away some subscribers by initiating fee structures. Long-time Mac aficionados, for example, well remember Apple’s iDisk, part of its free iTools online services released (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2000/01/05/apples_internet_strategy_takes_shape/) in 2000. Two years later, iTools morphed into .Mac – for $100 per year.
The next decade will see companies such as Apple, Google, their imitators, and their competitors squelching user choice and increasing lock-in. However, computing won’t be the only area in which control will be leached away by entities seeking more control over you and your wallet.
According to Intel prognosticators, halfway through the out-of-control 2010s there will be 15 billion (http://www.intel.com/embedded/15billion/) devices connected to the internet. And those 15 billion devices will fill the cloud with a staggering amount of information. About you.
Don your tinfoil hat – we’re going to take a quick jaunt through a possible future dystopia.
Paranoia strikes (digitally) deep
Today, the internet is essentially a computing and communications space. During the next decade, a vast array of embedded-internet devices will hop aboard what was once jocularly referred to as the infobahn.
Be they supermarket barcode scanners, electronic toll collectors, ID-card readers, home refrigerators, smart electrical meters, healthcare devices, or whatever, being internet-connected these devices will all potentially be able to talk amongst themselves in the next decade’s omniscient cloud, sharing data while cross-checking usage patterns.
All that data taken together will paint a highly detailed picture of you, your whereabouts, diet, health status, purchasing patterns, and lifestyle. And in some hands – say, those at the end of the long arm of the law or those clenched into an iron fist – that information could be used against you.
Don’t get us wrong. You might feel perfectly comfortable with your life being an open book, agreeing instead with Google CEO Eric Schmidt’s peculiar notions of privacy (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/07/schmidt_on_privacy/). As he recently told CNBC. “If you have something that you don’t want anyone to know, maybe you shouldn’t be doing it in the first place.”
The operant word in Schmidt’s smug statement is “anyone.” He assumes a benevolent, paternalist “anyone” who’s just like you and me, and keeps us good folks safe by watching out for terrorists, pedophiles, and other odious “thems”. In Schmidt’s world, there’s a “them” and an “us”.
If only life were that simple. It isn’t.
The definition of “them” is a highly mutable one. Here in the United States, citizens out of step with the dominant political philosophy have been regularly designated as “them,” and subjected to both extra-legal and legal-but-selective scrutiny – think of the McCarthy years, the late 1960s, and the post-9/11 hysteria, for example.
A patchwork of legal protections currently exists to protect against the unfettered tracking of such digital droppings as your location, buying practices, financial dealings, and health records. Although that protective shield is in clear need of consolidation and strengthening, it exists. Today, at least.
But data is an increasingly valuable commodity. And wherever there’s value to be found, there’s money to be made – and that money will fund an army of lobbyists to fiscally twist pliant lawmaking arms to weaken those protections.
The phrase “increasing shareholder value” is a talisman of almost religious power these days, matched only in its magical inarguability by its working-class mirror mantra of “job creation”. Expect both of those incantations to crop up in data-deregulation debates during the out-of-control 2010s, no matter which political party is in power.
Information about you is worth money. Big money. But to take an even darker view, it might be worth your life.
Come a significant breach in public security – a “9/11 redux”, if you will – and data safeguards will evaporate. Poof. Faced with an existential threat – whether real, imagined, or trumped up – the Schmidt philosophy will rule, and personal privacy and protection will dissolve.
This is not news. Just ask the 100,000 or so Japanese Americans from California, Oregon, and Washington who received all-expense-paid vacations in sunny Arizona, Utah, Wyoming and elsewhere during World War II.
The difference during a security crisis in the 2010s will be that there’s so much more data that avid dot-connecters might use to implicate possible “thems” – and that the majority of that potentially incriminating data is increasingly out of your control.
Those datapoint dots can be reassembled into narratives that suit the goals of the reassembler. As has been proven in many a grad-school psych project and as sung by Paul Simon in the key of B major, “A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest.”
And there will be many, many dots for those narrative builders to choose from. Today, as we ease our way into the out-of-control decade, tracking your habits and whereabouts is mostly either helpful or benign. In the San Francisco Bay Area, for example, a FasTrak (http://www.bayareafastrak.org/) electronic toll-collection devices helped one motorist recover her stolen car (http://www.mindfully.org/Technology/2005/FasTrak-Stolen-Car4nov05.htm) by reporting that car’s comings and goings.
In Blighty, although an enormous network of CCTV cameras make UK citizenry the most watched-over in the world (there are over one million cameras in London alone), when it comes to crime-fighting the system is a joke (http://www.theregister.co.uk/2009/12/15/cctv_regulator/). One report (http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/8219022.stm), for example, determined that one crime was solved per 1,000 CCTV cameras in London.
But electronic fare collection and CCTV are mere baby steps. During the next decade, information collection will expand by leaps and bounds. Advances in location-awareness, for example, may add passenger information to vehicle tracking, then extend that tracking beyond mere checkpoint monitoring to continuous surveillance. CCTVs will add more-infallible-than-not face detection and will thus be able to track individuals’ movements from camera to camera to camera.
If you’re a dot-connecting prosecutor with a narrative to build, you’re going to have plenty of info with which to construct your argument. And if you’re Mr. or Ms. Average Consumer, you’ll have little or no control over your own dots.
And it’s Mr. and Ms. Average Consumer – or, more correctly put, billions of Mr. and Ms. Average Consumers – who will find themselves increasingly out of control in the coming decade.
You, dear reader, as a technically sophisticated consumer of technology, can choose to avoid such relatively benign losses of control as Apple lock-in. You can also work your way around Google’s multi-tentacled grip on your personal information and web activities. With sufficient effort, you can also keep most of your personal digital dots out of the cloud, where they could otherwise be pounced upon by those who might want to rewrite your narrative to their own ends.
But Mr. and Ms. Average Consumer can’t. You might be able to retain a modicum of control during the coming decade, but most folks won’t be able to.
They’ll be out of control.